In a unanimous decision last week, the Roswell City Council lifted its year-old ban on public cussing.
Well, &*@$, you might say.
The reversal came on the advice of the city’s legal department and others who pointed to a long list of court precedents. Short of “fighting words” intended to start a brawl, being a potty-mouth is a constitutional right protected by the First Amendment.
But there is more to this case than mere free speech.
One year ago, LaTrinda Williams, 33, a mom with a tech support job, was at a Roswell movie theater with a friend. She had paid for the tickets with a gift card, which an employee accused her of stealing. The cops were called.
There was no case. Eventually, Williams would produce a receipt. But when one of two officers began threatening her, Williams alleges, she aimed this then-illegal observation at him: “You would say some [blank] like that?”
Fill in the above blank with a common, four-letter synonym for “manure.” It’s a word you can hear on basic cable. For this, Williams was handcuffed, jailed, and charged with violating Roswell’s ban on “profane or obscene language in public.”
Charges against Williams were immediately dismissed. But she has filed a federal lawsuit against both the theater and the city, which is perhaps another reason why the Roswell City Council acted last Monday.
Many local governments have anti-cussing ordinances buried in their past. Roswell’s was different because it was adopted in March 2014. One purpose was “to reduce crime by giving the police department some additional tools,” according to Roswell’s police chief.
Williams is African-American. The officers who arrested her were white. And so one purpose of the lawsuit, still in its early stages, will be to determine whether the ordinance was used to escalate unpleasant police encounters with minorities into something more.
It is worth noting that Williams’ intersection with Roswell police occurred even as Ferguson, Mo., was tearing itself apart over a young black man shot and killed by a white cop.
“It’s a coalescing of both sides of the coin,” said Gerry Weber, one of two attorneys representing Williams. On one side, you have citizens who are becoming increasingly frustrated by police incidents. And then you’ve got police officers that are becoming very defensive about that criticism.”
The larger topic isn’t going away. In Cobb County, Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who is African-American, wonders why she was singled out by an undercover cop and tailed to her own neighborhood in July.
On Wednesday, in an extraordinary session at the Commerce Club, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed soberly recited the instructions his father gave him, at age 14, for any encounter with police:
“Both hands on the steering wheel. Both feet on the floor. Take your wallet out and put it on the seat next to you. Turn off the radio. Keep your face square. Look forward. Say ‘sir’ and ‘thank you’ to the police officers.”
Let us posit that using foul language in your dealings with police officers, or anyone else for that matter, may be constitutional, but it is not necessarily smart. Yet given the current climate, we also need to be sure that our law enforcement officers understand the importance of growing a thick skin.
And so I reached out to John Lowrimore, who, in his own phraseology, is one of two “newly minted instructors in verbal defense and influence” at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, Ga., where many of the state’s law enforcement officers get their first lessons in policing.
“I don’t know that there’s more cussing per se, but there’s definitely a lot less respect initially shown to people who are in authority,” Lowrimore said. “We in law enforcement have played a role in playing into that. We’ve had some rather notorious situations where we have undoubtedly shot ourselves in the proverbial foot.”
Lowrimore, of course, correctly emphasized that the cringe-worthy cell phone and body camera videos we’ve seen are a mere fraction of the tens of thousands of encounters police have with the public each day. But he also said that Georgia is well ahead of the curve when it comes to educating cops in de-escalation techniques.
So how should an officer deal with an F-bomb? “You respond to the content. You don’t react to the words,” Lowrimore said. Otherwise, “It tends to be a case of one-upsmanship, it tends to be inflammatory. Cops very quickly get invested in their ego, in terms of those police-citizen encounters.”
Lowrimore is quick to tell his students that de-escalation isn’t capitulation. Force is sometimes required, and individual safety isn’t something to be sacrificed. But the instructor also says that control of the conversation is crucial.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know. Upon approaching traffic stops, an officer’s opening line has become something of a cliché: “Sir (or Ma’am), do you know why I stopped you?”
No more. That’s been dropped. “Why in the world would you want to ask them that question? You can imagine some of the responses that would elicit,” Lowrimore said. Because I’m black. Because city hall needs the cash. Because the others were driving too fast to catch.
“You open the verbal Pandora’s box with that question. So instead, very simply, we say, ‘Sir, the reason I stopped you today is that you ran through the stop sign there back at 10th and Taylor Street.’ It takes away the opportunity for them to pontificate, if you will, on why it is that we stopped them,” he said.
In his classes, “that’s when you can really see the lights come on,” the police instructor said.
If his bosses are smart, they’ll put John Lowrimore in front of more than a few cameras, to explain where policing in Georgia is headed. The reassurance would be smart. But let’s give the last word to LaTrinda Williams.
I asked her if the past year has given her a new perspective on policing. She said she likes the idea of body cameras more and more. But her thoughts go back to what she said during her ride in the back seat of that Roswell patrol car. She didn’t cuss.
“I said, ‘You had a simple job to do. You only had to ask me for the receipt,’” Williams said.